Passive infrastructure owners? Hardly. Tower companies have been seen as a driving force behind multiple operator infrastructure sharing for a long time. And, while pure-play towercos still exist, many have been branching out for years.

Digital Bridge, for example, is focused on multiple classes of communications infrastructure: not just tower and rooftop antenna site ownership, development and management; but data centres, fibre and backhaul, cloud storage, small cells, DAS and Wi-Fi.

Acquisitions and diversification have made Crown Castle the owner of tens of thousands of miles of fibre along with towers and small cells. China Tower offers an AI-based solution for the smart monitoring of petroleum gas pipelines.

Towercos have opened up to new products and services as mobile network operators divest their non-core assets – not only towers, but also enterprise data centres and small cells.

The increasing need to store and transport data will drive this trend and 5G will reinforce it, bringing software defined networking (SDN) and network virtualisation that will require new approaches to fibre and base station rollout. With multiple relevant assets and long-term leases across fixed and mobile, towercos will be well placed to deliver not just 5G but densification, IoT and smart cities along with the convergence-led future.

But LTE continues to dominate the majority of markets, and in developing markets it will continue to be a prime enabler for bridging the digital divide. The more affordable infrastructure models that towercos can offer will be part of this change and, we believe, a prime enabler of it.

In short, the changing role of towercos is going to have important socio-economic value to governments. In some regions it will be about infrastructure sharing to enable rural rollout. In others it will be about a multi-asset offering that can help to enable 5G, smart cities and convergence.

And Real Wireless can support both towercos and governments in making these desirable outcomes a reality. As independent wireless experts with real-world expertise, we have worked with all areas of the wireless industry – technical, business, deployment and regulatory. Particularly useful to the expanded towerco offering is our role working with regulators to advise and inform them as they try to navigate an increasingly complex telecommunications landscape.

From advice on sharing and ownership models, to modelling the broader economic impacts of frictionless densification, and deployment; this is a landscape that has been home to Real Wireless for many years, and the transformation of towercos into holistic digital infrastructure service providers is going to be an important one for its continuing evolution.

The idea of tower provision as a simple matter of siting, construction and maintenance has long been inadequate. Whether it’s bridging the digital divide, enabling smart cities or supporting densification, towercos will be a central part of not one, but many futures.

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